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Leading With Our Values

If we start from the thesis that theatre artists and their skills are critical to the health of our democracy – which I think we must if we want to matter – then it’s clearly incumbent upon non-commercial producers to increase these artists’ exposure and potential impact.  We have to put them in places and contexts where their particular strengths will be featured: where they can challenge new audiences, foster empathy, and catalyze honest dialogue on intractable issues among truly diverse constituents who represent the entire community.  And while we thus maximize their intrinsic value, we must simultaneously increase their extrinsic value, including both their excellence and their material worth (for instance, by raising salaries).  To accomplish all of this, we’re going to have to see ourselves as leaders from an ethical standpoint, in addition to the aesthetic and/or commercial leadership perspectives we currently use.

By way of example – and I admit a profoundly self-serving one! – here’s how my company Epic Theatre Ensemble tackled one of what had been our most limiting challenges, our contract with Actor’s Equity Association.

Epic Theatre Ensemble has always tried to find ways to get artists into the places they are needed most – into communities that are disadvantaged, and disenfranchised, and disconnected from the role theatre could play in their recovery; into schools saddled with cultures of low expectations; into productions that tackle complex moral and social challenges that the we struggle with in our communities and our nation as a whole.  It’s always been important to us that the SAME artists work in our classrooms as on our stages, so that our students see their Teaching Artists performing Off-Broadway in the same kind of work they’re tackling in their classrooms and after-school programs.  We’ve found it’s a powerful tool to help young people making a personal, lasting connection to theatrical participation.

We’ve always aimed to pay our actors well above what’s considered the minimum, or even “standard.”  We paid actors $260/week on our first Off-Broadway production in our founding season (2001-02); our budget that first year was about $260,000.  So on a 10-week contract, which is what we were shooting for on average, each actor was getting about 1% of the total organizational budget (and because we did extensive work in schools from day one, production was only about half of our budget).  I followed this as a kind of secret rule-of-thumb for many years thereafter; five years later, when we were a $600,000/yr. organization producing Nilaja Sun’s NO CHILD…, we were paying actors $450/week.  But recently, for a variety of very good reasons that were responses to the many pressures and constraints that non-commercial producers have to work within, we began to abandon that ratio, and by 2010 (our biggest season to date, including producing Sarah Ruhl’s PASSION PLAY), we were looking at a $1.2 million budget and actor salaries were essentially stagnant.

So, we’ve made an economic correction.  For this season, Epic has condensed 90% of our extensive Off-Broadway, new play development, AND in-school and after-school educational programming into one 20-week period, from January to June 2011. What this enables us to do is hire a full-time acting/teaching ensemble, 42 hours/week at $900/week, which appears to be the highest non-commercial minimum of any contract in NYC. The actors rehearse, perform, teach, and develop new work together all under a single umbrella Equity contract.  Half are on a 20-week contract (including one Stage Manager) and they’ll get a year of health insurance to follow; the other half work in a more concentrated timeline, at 12-weeks (including an additional SM), with 6 months of health insurance.  We think it may be the first of it’s kind in our contemporary era of union/producer relations, and it harkens back to that old “ensemble” idea that everyone in our field seems to dimly remember and respect, but rarely try.

So the actors are under a single contract when they are: rehearsing and performing MACBETH Off-Broadway; workshopping new plays, from Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. and Brandt Adams’ DISPATCHES FROM (A)MENDED AMERICA and Jeanne Sakata’s HOLD THESE TRUTHS to Keith Josef Adkins’ SUGAR AND NEEDLES and Michael Brandt’s FLOOD; participating in the early development of 7 new play commissions; in-residence in four key partner High Schools in underserved communities across NYC, sequentially serving every student every year; rehearsing, performing, and acting as mentors in the after-school “Shakespeare Remix” program each of these schools has, that culminates in four student/professional productions; and participating in a company-wide social media campaign to spread the civic dialogue we’re trying to generate beyond the walls of our performance spaces.  Almost all of this work will be done by a core group of 15 artists, providing hundreds of hours of arts education while reaching thousands of young people and adult audiences.

For Epic, it’s really an extension of our belief that theatrical producers need to take responsibility for increasing the value of theatre artists in our society. Though I was initially reticent to ask for a truly new contract, Actor’s Equity was quite responsive to the idea, which now seems self-evident: AEA is a union, after all.  If we can offer their members better salaries in a reasonable work environment with health insurance guaranteed, why wouldn’t they want to give it a try?  In the end, neither side had to “sacrifice” anything – we just had to negotiate commonly-understood guidelines on where each side could be flexible and where we couldn’t.

Next year, our goal is to build two separate 12-20 week contract periods, one in Fall 2012 and one in Spring 2013, and use double the number of actors. As we build, we’ll turn our attention to creating similarly supportive contracts for writers, directors, and designers. By the way, participation in the artistic ensemble is not guaranteed to a single group of individuals: everyone from our diverse group of artistic associates has to audition for each contract, and we’ll always have auditions for those who are not yet our associates.  No one will have to make long-term promises in order to participate, and that’s better for both the artists and the organization.  But of course it’s harder that way.  And it’s not cheap. We’re paying more than we would if we kept paying Off-Broadway and Teaching Artist work separately.  But in any intractable situation – which this issue of artist value (and especially their salaries) has become – someone often has to take a radical, risky step in order to re-shape the conversation.  Because Epic believes that in the American theatre, our artists are our stock in trade, we’re willing to engage in radical risk to increase their value.  And we believe in leading with our values, one of which is a fair workplace with a strong union presence.

Leading with values, and taking big risks, are hugely important right now, when there is an acute need to position artists in the center of the civic dialogue.  Because that dialogue has reached a nadir of participation and significance, and there is about to be a backlash.  I think we’re about to enter one of those massive cultural shifts we seem to go through every fifty years or so in this country, a period where we engage in a major re-envisioning of our national ethics and their daily practice.  And this dialogue about where we stand as a country, a true national conversation on moral issues like abortion, education, punishment, and health care, will require a new language if it’s to yield results of the greatest good for the greatest number.  Honest, inclusive, constructive dialogue is damn difficult to achieve anywhere, but especially when participants begin the conversation from so many diverse corners, as we do across this nation.  To be central to this shift, to matter, and to increase our perceived value, theatre artists must use the tools of our trade, tools such as empathy and ethics, to help drive a dialogue that’s as practical, as fair, and as fruitful as possible.

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